Friday, March 23, 2007

The Justice Project: Don't gut Texas' Forensic Science Commission before it gets off the ground

Edwin Colfax, Director of State Reform Campaigns at the Austin office of The Justice Project, emailed today with concerns about HB 2832 by Driver which is up in the House Law Enforcement Committee on Monday. More soon on the rest of the committee's agenda, but I thought I'd share Colfax's critique with Grits readers:
HB 2832 completely rewrites the statute authorizing the Forensic Science Commission (FSC) in a way that is unnecessary and undermines its independence, thus putting at risk approximately $1.5 million in federal forensic science improvement funds.

Texas has plenty of first hand experience with negligence and misconduct in forensic science. The Houston Crime Lab debacle is only the most famous, but serious problems have surfaced in other local jurisdictions and the DPS lab. The Forensic Science Commission was created last session to provide fully independent, external oversight. It has so far been given no appropriations to hire staff and start working, but the Senate has provided for the FSC budget in the current session.

The Commission has sought some clarification and guidance about its nuts and bolts operation and the extent of its authority. This is natural for a new commission. The needed guidance can be provided without radically restructuring the statute.

This commission has not been given the opportunity to even get off the ground because of no appropriation. A budget for staff and investigation has been provided in the Senate appropriations process. Once the Commission is staffed, staff will have the opportunity to work through these concerns. We should give the existing structure the opportunity to work before radically changing it.

The proposed bill takes away the supervisory authority over investigations from the FSC and gives it to the director of DPS. The FSC is also to be housed and staffed by DPS. All these things (especially the first) compromise the independence of the Commission.

The intent was to provide for independent external investigations regarding allegations of professional negligence or misconduct. The commission should be in charge of overseeing investigations. If allegations regarding a DPS lab are at issue, it is undesirable to have DPS hand-pick and contract with an investigator to investigate itself. This is unnecessary because the FSC will have a budget and staff to do this.

By compromising the independence and externality of the investigative supervision, the proposed bill places in jeopardy approximately $1.5 million per biennium in federal grants through the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Program. These funds are now contingent on a state providing for independent, external review of allegations of forensic negligence or misconduct.

The bill eliminates the duty of accredited labs to report allegations of professional negligence or misconduct to the Forensic Science Commission. Essentially, the only duty for the Forensic Science Commission under the bill is to perform a superficial review of any allegations it happens to receive, and forward ones it deems credible to the DPS.

Under the bill, the Forensic Science Commission has no control or oversight over the conduct and reporting of investigations into forensic negligence or misconduct. Its only role under the bill is to provide a superficial review of any allegations it happens to receive, and forward credible ones to DPS. That guts the Commission of the substantive oversight powers it was created to exercize.

The legislature’s intent was to create a mechanism independent and external of law enforcement bureaucracies, to review and investigate allegations of professional negligence or misconduct. The proposed restructuring is at odds with that goal.
UPDATE: AP (3/25) has an excellent story on why forensic science commissions in Texas and other states have yet to hear a case despite a dire, pressing need for their services.

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